September 2016

Uncovering Advanced Science, Technology, and Startups at the University of Illinois Research Park


Photo: By Jlfergu2 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

If you want to get to Champaign-Urbana from Chicago, here is my suggested route:

  • Depart the city heading south.
  • Drive through high corn fields and lush soy fields.
  • When you feel your mind being blown, you have arrived.

Specifically, you have arrived at the University of Illinois Research Park where both enterprise companies and startups bask in the glow of advanced science and research. I made the trek with Laura Freichs, the Director of Research Park, as my guide for the experience.

First, let me describe the physical space — 15 buildings over a sprawling 200 acres of space adjacent to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) campus. There are, at any given time, 100 corporate companies with corporate innovation centers housed there. There are an additional 50 startups sprouting out of the beautiful and collaborative EnterpriseWorks tech incubator housed at Research Park.

Let’s cover the corporate innovation centers first. Some of the largest companies in the US are doing research and development at Research Park, much of it focused on data, advanced computation, and advanced modeling. The companies doing research vary in industry, from Abbott and Abvie in life sciences, to Capital One and CME Group in financial services, to ABInBev and Dow in process manufacturing.

What kind of work do these corporate titans do at Research Park?

Caterpillar not only houses a simulation center and an advanced data innovation lab at Research Park, they have also employed over 500 student interns, more than 100 of whom have landed jobs as engineers at Cat. Yahoo has 165 employees doing advanced software development and research, and created a home base for their Hadoop Center of Excellence and Data team. These companies all see access to a top talent pipeline as a key benefit, not to mention the early look at trends in the innovation and data spaces they get by being located in close proximity to UIUC.

For me, the corporate partners were the icing on the cake. I was there to learn about the startups. Specifically, I was looking to meet with startups that had either a civic tech or smart cities focus. I wasn’t disappointed. Laura and her team brought me to EnterpriseWorks , a 43,000 sq ft incubator. EnterpriseWorks houses startups that are heavily invested in science-based commercialization opportunities…heavy, heavy science.   Given that UIUC is home to some of the world’s top engineering talent and computing resources (their Blue Waters supercomputer is the fastest in the academic world), this makes sense.

Some of the companies and researchers I met included:

  • Dr. Kaustubh Bhalerao, a researcher in biological nanotechnology, who has been working on ways to dramatically reduce the cost of testing nitrogen content in the soil. Nitrogen fertilization is essential for profitable crop production, and optimizing for nitrogen improves the food supply.
  • Dr. Yanfeng Ouyang and Rebekah Yang of TEST (Transportation Engineering Solutions & Technology), a spinoff from a U of I project for the Illinois Tollway. They look at the sustainability of roadways across the lifecycle, from building them to using them. They use advanced science and engineering research to build tools that will improve environmental and economic impacts of transportation infrastructure (both roads and rail).
  • AE Machines and their Chief Technology Officer, Amy LaViers, could have had me for the entire day if they would let me play with their product all day. Amy had Ardiuno littleBits sprawled across a table. Her company built a drag and drop design interface so that the young and non-technical can have fun learning about the internet of things. It will truly broaden the opportunity for IoT.
  • Tim Sinclair, the CEO of Ringr with a seasoned radio voice (he was actually a sports announcer in an earlier life). Ringr solves the problem of remote interviews on your podcast sounding, well, remote. With his technology, a remote conversation sounds like you are in the same room.
  • Quicket Solutions, whose CEO, Christiaan Burner, showed me how his Software as a Service solution for law enforcement can bring a notoriously antiquated field into the age of the cloud. Any law enforcement agency, with low risk and no up-front investment, can turn paper-based reporting evidence management, and compliance into a process served up from the cloud to any of a number of endpoints.
  • Granular, a Bay area creator of farm management software ERP software, has a regional HQ in Research Park. They were one of a number of businesses in the AgriTech space. Given that the region is heavily invested in agriculture, it makes sense to do your research where you have access to and input from your future customer base.

These are the people Laura with whom Laura gets to spend each day. Every group I met with pushed my adrenaline levels just a little bit higher. What truly capped it for me was my visit to the Cline Center for Democracy, a group that brings data, democracy, and the human condition together with research like I had never seen before. Story for another blog.

And if I sound like a fan…well…I was Class of 1988.

Accelerate Your Business set to give Chicago small businesses the tools to reach the next level


The transition from seat-of-the-pants startup to established small business is one of the most exciting times for entrepreneurs, and the most challenging. Microsoft is helping businesses successfully move forward by offering solutions, best practices and networking through the Accelerate Your Business Event Series.

There will be a lot to take in at the Chicago event. FUBU founder and Shark Tank star, Daymond John’s keynote will help you to take your brand to the next level. National media personalities, Carol Roth and Gene Marks will lead discussions on entrepreneurial essentials like customer loyalty and game-changing technology. Then Microsoft VP Gary Fowle will showcase the technology that’s not just hot but essential to maximize productivity and profits.

  • Tap into new sources of inspiration from successful entrepreneurs
  • Connect with business leaders just like you to share stories and experience
  • Get laser focused on technology that can amplify yourbusiness productivity
  • Experience the innovation lounge with technology solutions designed for yourbusiness
  • Learn how to build a world-class infrastructure with the peace-of-mind and security you expect

Accelerate Your Business will be at the Chicago Hilton on Monday October 24th, 2016. Register here to be challenged, entertained and informed.

What do you REALLY mean when you say Civic Tech?


Sometimes it’s hard to describe what we do every day. If you’re in the civic tech community, you probably know the feeling as well.

The Microsoft team thought it would be a good idea to try to capture the gist of what is going on with the Chicago civic tech movement and after a bit of research and discussion, we decided the best way to approach this was to suggest some definitions and spotlight some of the groups and organizations which make up this very collaborative ecosystem. While this ecosystem is really fluid, there are definitely some themes that have emerged and people and organizations have organized around these themes.

The themes include: MeetUps; Resources; “Dedicated” Civic Tech organizations; STEM/Education and National Civic Tech organizations. We have also included some current examples of notable civic tech applications and businesses.

The personality of Chicago’s Civic Tech ecosystem is best illustrated by the large number of MeetUp opportunities and the impressive turnout at these programs. While there is certainly some overlap of attendees, there is also a good measure of cross pollination. What’s really important to recognize is that the civic tech ecosystem is open to anyone and everyone; no matter where you come from, you have a valuable perspective to contribute to how technology affects the public good. Within the scene, you can find people coming from all different roles and walks of life, which is what gives the movement so much strength. Everyone’s story is different and through technology, we have the unprecedented ability to take into these unique viewpoints and make sure that all voices are heard. In civic tech, there’s a clear goal to eliminate the barriers to entry.

In addition, in the hopes of inspiring the next generation to get interested in data science and analytics and to increase the focus on STEM and STEAM in Chicago, we’ve included several organizations which assist students, faculty and families improve their digital literacy skills. This is by no means a complete list! We’ve included the fairly obvious and mission critical CS4ALL from CPS, as well as smaller, more community focused organizations like Project SYNCERE. Again, we hope to illustrate from this list the organic, evolving nature of this ecosystem.

We hope you feel free to use this compilation, chat with us on about enhancements we can add and most importantly, reach out and connect with the organizations we’ve included.

Read on:

A Chicagoan’s Introduction to Civic Tech

A Chicagoan’s Introduction to Civic Tech

Chicago Civic Tech Introduction

What is Civic Tech? The Use of Technology for the Public Good

Civic tech uses the intersection of technology and community to improve lives through civic engagement. Collaboration is at the core of the movement, where public solutions are built for the people, by the people. No matter what your experience or role, anyone from any sphere (government, entrepreneurship, nonprofits, academia, etc.) is welcome to share and build ideas together. This guide is a broad overview of the civic tech communities & resources to help with your role as civic leader and organizer. For any questions, further information, or a personalized tour/consultation, contact the Microsoft Civic Tech Engagement team.

Civic Tech Chicago Quick-Start Guide

  1. Be passionate about solving civic problems and helping the public good.
  2. Check out projects that you’re interested in and learn about the existing resources.
  3. Join a meetup (ChiHackNight, Chicago City Data Users Group, etc.).
  4. Get involved by starting a new project or working on a currently existing one.
  5. Talk to people, make a new friend, and learn how you can have an impact with your voice!

Notable Civic Tech Examples

  • mRelief – Working with government, nonprofit, and business stakeholders to provide an easy-touse platform enables Americans to find out if they qualify for social services through online or SMS
  • Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup) – Community of Chicago and Cook County residents who get paid to test out civic websites and apps. Hosted by Smart Chicago Collaborative.
  • Madison Project – Open-source policy platform empowering citizen participation in official government documents through online tools and engagement. Supported by OpenGov Foundation.
  • Civic App Portals: SmartChicago Apps, ChiHackNight Projects, Open City Apps

Chicago Meetups

  • ChiHackNight – Weekly Tuesday gathering of 100+ civic tech enthusiasts to work on projects and network. The definitive place for the Chicago civic tech scene. All experience welcome!
  • ConnectChicago – Monthly meeting for bringing Chicago public computer centers, community technology, and digital literacy. Hosted by Smart Chicago Collaborative.
  • Chicago City Data Users Group – Monthly discussion for anyone interested in using open data to promote civic engagement, innovation, and economic opportunity
  • Notable Community Spaces: 1871, Blue1647, Englewood Accelerator, Polsky Exchange (CIE)


  • Chicago Open Data Portal – Access 600+ datasets and maps of Chicago City departments, services, and performance. Use this portal to develop data to develop civic tools and apps
  • Microsoft Chicago – Free software, consultations, device loans to help with your civic tech goals
  • Chicago Public Library – Provides digital literacy training, computing centers, mobile hotspots, etc.
  • Connect Chicago Computing Map – Index of 260+ free computer, internet, and training resources
  • Civic Graph – An interactive and informative list of both national and local civic tech organizations

Chicago Organizations

  • Smart Chicago Collaborative – Leading civic organization devoted to improving lives through technology. Founded by the City of Chicago, MacArthur Foundation, and Chicago Community Trust. Efforts on access to internet/tech, digital skills, and meaningful data projects to create change.
  • DataMade – Born out of Chicago’s Open Government community. Civic tech company building open-source technology using open data to empower citizens, government, and communities.
  • Microsoft Chicago – Providing resources and partnerships with civic organizations and leaders.
  • The Impact Lab – Civic data company working with public & private-sector to solve analytical and strategic problems, particularly in the areas of health, education, operations, and sustainability.
  • Center for Neighborhood Technology – Research and advocacy nonprofit, analyzing urban problems and creating sustainable neighborhood solutions with community and technology.
  • Center for Technology and Civic Life – Improving elections & engagement with civic data/resources.
  • Data Science for the Social Good – University of Chicago program connecting data scientists with governments & nonprofits to solve real-world problems in education, health, civics, and more.
  • Hive Chicago – Network of 80+ youth-development organizations, focused on leveraging the tools of the digital age to create connected learning opportunities for youth, parents, and educators.

Chicago STEM/Education

  • Chicago Public Schools: CS4ALL – CPS graduation requirement for computer science education
  • Chicago City of Learning – A city-wide platform for student learning, activities, and digital badges
  • Thrive Chicago – Bringing together hundreds of child and youth serving organizations to accomplish the shared objective of supporting all Chicago youth from “cradle-to-career”
  • LRNG – National organization redesigning education in the 21st century using digital badging and connecting youth with learning communities. Chicago is a major pilot city for LRNG programs
  • Project SYNCERE – Provides under-represented students with STEM programs and curriculum
  • Illinois Civic Mission Coalition – Broad, non-partisan consortium focused on civic education

National Civic Tech Organizations

  • Code for America – Nonprofit connecting technologists and local governments to improve services
  • Knight Foundation – Supporting ideas and innovation for more informed and engaged communities
  • Sunlight Foundation – Nonpartisan effort improving transparency in democracy and politics
  • OpenGov Foundation – Organization developing software, events, and coalitions that push citizens and governments across the country to be more accessible and responsive.

Civic Tech Glossary

  • Digital Literacy – Ability to use digital technology, communication, tools, and networks to evaluate and create information. Overlaps with civic tech in improving digital access for the public.
  • Open Data – Empowering citizens through the free access and release of information and data; generally used in the context of government, but can be applied to other organizations
  • Open Source – Software whose source code (think technical blueprints) is free to be redistributed and modified; useful for learning and building from existing projects.
  • Hackathon – Event for community leaders and technologists to gather, collaborate, and create civic solutions. Usually in the form of 1-2 day long events with presentations, networking, and free food!
  • For more terms and common tools, check out the Smart Chicago Glossary of Civic Tech Terms

CUTGroup Detroit Proves to Be Cutting Edge

I’ve been reflecting on the past year we’ve been supporting civic tech programs in Detroit. We started with the recognition that “something neat” was going on in Detroit and perhaps Microsoft could provide a bit of a boost, energy and support to some key groups to help the Civic Tech Ecosystem. Through a bit of research and human networking, we landed on our great partners at Data Driven Detroit. We interviewed a ton of students who were interested in joining the Microsoft team as Fellows and thankfully landed on Ivoire Morrell, a talented young man with an amazing combination of tech skills, commitment and values (read more from Ivoire here). We explored the priorities of the City of Detroit, working with Garlin Gilchrist II, who accurately describes himself as a servant leader and father of twins (with a passion as @DetroitCivTech). One of the key priorities of the City of Detroit was figuring out how to use technology to efficiently and effectively deliver city services to its citizens. All of us had various levels of exposure to Smart Chicago Collaborative’s fantastic Civic User Testing program (CUTGroup) and as a team—a true public/private partnership—we decided that this was going to be our launch into true civic tech for Detroit. Voila! @CUTGroupDetroit was born!

cutgroup-flyerCreating a new CUTGroup is a process and a labor of love. It seems simple: create a Civic User Testing Group which is a community of residents of Detroit who get paid to test out websites and apps. While this seems straightforward  to people in the tech industry or a thriving civic tech ecosystem, try building it when your community members may not have internet at home, or a device at home, or the digital skills necessary to go online and figure out if a website or app even works. So, how do you find the people to build the community? You hit the road—putting up flyers on lampposts and delivering notices to nonprofit organizations. You send a ton of tweets, and re-tweets. You call your friends to help spread the word. Oh, yes, during the hot, hot days of August. And over time, word spreads. And from zero to hero, you sign up over 200 interested users (and growing).

Then, you need to figure out what to test. So many websites, so little time. Working with the City, the decision was made to review a commercial property website and mobile app. We really didn’t know what to expect in our first test, because we don’t really know in advance the skills of the users who sign up—will they be able to give us the feedback we need to tweak the website to make it “usable” for the citizens of Detroit.

Ford Resource and Engagement Center at 2826 Bagley in Detroit

Then, you need to get people to actually sign up for your test. So they need to be available on the date you pick. And they need to be able to use public transportation (or drive) to the user testing site. Good parking, a space that is open after 5 pm, a space that is accessible….all of this plays into the details of running a CUTGroup for the very first time. We are indebted to the hospitality and accessibility of the Ford Resource and Engagement Center at 2826 Bagley in Detroit. They staff was fabulous to work with, and it’s a wonderful, local community center close to expressways with free parking.

Then, you need to go to Costco. Because what is a CUTGroup without munchies. Cookies, candy, water, soda…oh, yeah!!!

Joel of CUTgroup instructing a new userSo, we assembled everything—the gift cards to pay the users, the food, checked the internet, trained our facilitators (thank you Sonja Marziano!), and got ready for our users to show up. And show up they did! We had 100% attendance, which I am told is something of a record as CUTGroups go. That tells me that we are on to something here…the users of Detroit are really, really interested in understanding their data and providing feedback to City officials on what is meaningful and understandable. We ran our program from about 4 pm-7:30pm. After a short wrap up and a lot of self-congratulations (well deserved), we set a time to convene and analyze the data we received through the program. The feedback from Joel, who works for the City and was a terrific facilitator, was that he “could start making changes now based on the feedback”. That’s the kind of 360 degrees circle you want to have.

So our journey is on its way. We still have to roll up our sleeves and drill deep into the evaluation for each user. Joel and his team need to figure out how many changes are doable and what the ROI will be. But we are getting there. We’re getting people who are interested in providing feedback. And they are going to tell their friends to come to the next testing day. We have a place and space, and a process that we know works. And we have lots and lots of websites and apps to test in the future. So, Detroit, get ready for CUTGroupDetroit!

Big Shoulders: Alden Loury, Director of Research & Evaluation, The Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC)


The Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) is on a mission to promote and advance equitable growth in Chicago, especially in areas that experience economic and racial segregation. Through research and policy change, MPC wants to grow underserved communities into sustainable regions so they receive effective service systems, government access, and infrastructure development.

MPC is conducting research in partnership with Urban Institute to discover the relationship between economic segregation and quality of life indicators in these Chicago regions compared to other metropolitan areas in the country. To encourage growth in these areas, MPC has created the Grow Chicago Transit Oriented Development (TOD) Calculator, which shows how development near transit benefits communities.

In Adam J. Hecktman‘s latest Big Shoulders, he discusses the ways in which Chicago can improve its communities with Alden Loury, Director of Research and Evaluation of MPC live on Advisor.TV.

Rock the Vote This National Voter Registration Day


Are you registered to vote? In 2008, 6 million Americans missed their chance to vote — either because they missed a registration deadline, or didn’t know how to register. National Voter Registration Day, a new annual initiative, brings this information to the forefront to make sure every American has all the necessary information to register to vote.

The National Association of Secretaries of State has established the fourth Tuesday of September as National Voter Registration Day annually, making today (September 27, 2016) the day to act!

This presidential election, we want to make sure every American has a chance to vote. That’s why we’re excited to partner in Rock the Vote’s Corporate Civic Responsibility Program, working to make voter registration readily available to employees and consumers alike. And, with Microsoft Pulse, we’re helping the public become more informed voters through initiatives like

Looking for an easy way to find voter registration information? Just Bing search “how to register to vote” and Bing will display local information for you, including deadlines, requirements, and an online voter registration platform.

Big Shoulders: Chris O’Brien, iKeedo

Adam Hecktman and Chris O'Brien

Aikido is a Japanese martial art that specializes in redirecting your opponent’s attack to eliminate it without harming yourself (or your opponent). Its name comprises three kanji, or characters, that unite to define Aikido as the path to unifying life energy.

  •  – ai – joining, unifying, combining, fitting
  •  – ki – spirit, energy, mood, morale
  •  –  – way, path

While Aikido may be best known thanks to Steven Seagal, one key player is bringing its philosophy to the tech sector. Chicago’s Chris O’Brien has created iKeedo, a new way to redirect negativity on the internet into creative philanthropic opportunities and more.

Adam J. Hecktman’s latest Big Shoulders explores iKeedo’s functions and the spirit of Aikido with Chris O’Brien. Watch Adam’s talk with Chris live on

Civic Chat: Networking Our Neighborhoods — Becky Raymond, Chicago Citywide Literacy Coalition

Shelley Stern Grach and Becky Raymond

An estimated 30% of adults in Chicago have limited to low skills in basic literacy, which has direct financial, social, and personal impacts on society. The Chicago Citywide Literacy Coalition is working to combat this statistic, providing funding and resources to adult education centers around the city.

In Shelley Stern Grach’s latest Civic Chat — Networking Our Neighborhoods, she sits down with Becky Raymond, Executive Director of the Chicago Citywide Literacy Coalition, to explore the growth of the organization from a small grassroots movement of 20 people to a staple in Chicago’s community.

Watch Shelley’s chat with Becky live on

Announcing A New Way to Watch Presidential Debates

Election season is in full swing!

With our two 2016 major-party candidates gearing up for debates, we’re excited to announce the newest venture between PBS NewsHour and Microsoft:, expanding on an existing civic education partnership between PBS and the Commission on Presidential Debates. This interactive civic education and voter engagement site provides access to every general election debate since 1960, allowing visitors ability to screen entire debates and highlights, track how specific issues over the years, and interact with the content using online voting tools from Microsoft Pulse.

Since the first televised presidential debate in 1960, these events have been integral to the American democratic process and the leading forum for serious discussion of current affairs. Today, for the first time, these debates are being organized and made available in one place for the American public in an online forum.

On, users can access various content and engagement tools, including:

  • Livestreams of the four 2016 general election debates
  • Full debate footage from 39 previously broadcast debates
  • Online rating and audience engagement of previous & this year’s debates, powered by Microsoft Pulse
  • Highlight reels of memorable moments from all televised debates between 1960-2016
  • Issue-based reels looking at the evolution of key policy and political issues through the years

Experience WatchTheDebates yourself — head to